When you have a non-verbal child with autism, there is something unnerving about people asking questions like:
Does he know about Santa Claus?
When it comes to younger children, questions like that can really drum up emotions that no one is prepared for. It ranks up there with the ol’ “Does he know its his birthday?” Nothing like feeling your face get red with anger underneath an Elmo birthday hat.
The truth is, most people mean no harm with those types of inquiries. They are just making conversation or “don’t know what to say.” You get that a lot when your child has special needs. Those outside your home don’t understand anything about your life and they turn to you for answers. The problem is that they don’t know how, especially in the early days, parents are also searching for answers.
I never knew how to respond when the holiday inquiries began. Viscerally, it felt like an insult at first glance. My mind would go wild with possible responses.
Does he know about Santa Claus? What is that supposed to mean? I don’t know. You know he doesn’t talk, right? How can you ask me that? Know what about Santa Claus? His middle name? Do you? Do you know his middle name? No? Santa John Claus? Huh? No? Then shut up.
Of course, after that split second internal monologue, I’d usually shrug and regurgitate something generic like:
Yeah. I guess. He knows he likes presents and cake. Right, little guy? Huh? Cake?
Then I’d tussle his hair and hope that this nosey person goes away. It’s Christmas. Give me a break, pal.
The truth was that I didn’t know if he knew what was happening with Christmas. Though the years, I’ve gone back and forth in my opinion. Now that he’s ten, I feel more confident than ever in my answer. That’s to say, I feel just about half-sure.
No. I don’t think Lucas knows what Santa is supposed to be, just as I don’t think he knows when it’s his birthday.
It’s hard to say that because it feels like I am saying something insulting to my son. For a long time, I believed just that. I’ve gotten to know him very well over the past decade, though. He’s tied for the person in the world I love the most. So, nothing I say about him is ever an insult. No opinion I have is borne out of a disparaging point of view.
It’s the truth. My son loves people. That’s part of who he is. He is friendly and, after knowing someone briefly, he will tap them on the shoulder to mouth a “hi” or offer a hug. The enjoyment he gets from a fancy meal of varied food along with music is a sure-fire sign that holidays are right up his alley. He’s jolly and jovial like a little Bing Crosby, this kid. He might not have the vocals, but he’s got the swagger and the style.
In terms of what those holidays specifically are, however, he’s not really up to speed. He doesn’t know that there’s a special day that the presents are coming. He doesn’t understand that there’s a legend of a man who brings him those presents and, when he goes to sleep on Christmas Eve, he wakes up to a bevy of rewards in the morning. He doesn’t know that there’s a bunny who brings him the chocolates he gobbles up on Easter. He doesn’t know that he gets unlimited candy simply for holding out a pumpkin at the end of October. He doesn’t know that he gets cake when he’s completed a revolution around the sun. He just doesn’t.
And that’s fine.
It doesn’t mean we stop doing it though. Lucas still gets the same holiday treatment that his sister did. He meets the sensory friendly Santa and Bunny at the mall. He gets to “blow out” his birthday candles with help from his father or sister. We still do it all.
Also, overlooked in all of this is that being able to admit those truths isn’t a bad thing for my kid. It makes certain things that were once confusing for me easier to explain. It aleviates awkward tension and keeps him as a participating member of those special days.
For example, Lucas doesn’t do surprises and rarely loves presents when he gets them. Aside from rare instances where he unwraps a replacement toy for one that had broken, he disregards every gift the moment he sees it. He will walk away, right in the face of gift giver, leaving their mouths agape and the ribbon still dangling.
Those who don’t know him very well might get offended. That’s on them, though. Once, I would have laughed nervously or tried to make him pretend to like it. I’d animate his excitement by holding his arms up like a marionette; creating a spectacle at his expense. The whole thing would have been a big dog and pony show.
Today, I simply thank the gift-giver, explain that it usually takes him a little while to warm up to new presents, and then have him give a hug to say “thank you.” That’s it. That’s all that he needs to do. My son doesn’t need to feign excitement because he never needs to feign anything. He just needs to be the person he is. That’s the person we love.
All this being said, I could still be wrong. He might silently love Christmas and secretly be keeping tabs on Santa’s course. I highly doubt it, but it’s possible. Anything is possible. Either way, we’re covered because we still make him a part of all our celebrations no matter what. We include him not because he does or doesn’t “get” what a holiday is, but because he’s our family and we love him, just as he loves us. That’s one thing I know for sure.
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